SABEA (Heb. שְׁבָא ,סְבָא – S(h)evaʾ; Ass. Sabaʾai (Tiglath-Pileser III); Sum. Sabum/Sabu? (see Montgomery in bibl.)), state in S. Arabia in the region exposed to the monsoon from Hadhramaut to Yemen, contemporary with the Israelite monarchy. Explorations and excavations conducted by the University of Louvain (1951–52) and the American Foundation for the Study of Man (1950–53) uncovered epigraphic evidence in the area, dating from the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E. to the sixth century C.E., which reflects political development from theocracy, through secular monarchy, to oligarchy.
Sabea, roughly coinciding with Yemen, displayed the greatest durability in the various shifts of power between the Sabean, Minean, and Qatabanian states. Radiocarbon dating indicates that Sabea flourished from around 900 to 450 B.C.E. (for beginnings, see Grohmann in bibl.). Besides engaging in agriculture, which utilized seasonal rainfall and advanced irrigation, these kingdoms, exploiting their proximity to Africa across the Straits of Bab el Mandeb, were essentially trading empires, serving as entrépôts of maritime trade from India and East Africa, and transporting foreign luxuries and their home-produced incense (Jer. 6:20; Ps. 72:15) by camel caravans (Isa. 60:6; Job 6:19 [?]) to Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt. A South Arabian clay seal from the ninth century found in debris at Beth-El possibly attests to such trade with the early Israelite monarchy.
The visit of the Queen of *Sheba (I Kings 10) is one of the earliest examples of a trade mission. It was occasioned by Solomon's occupation of the head of the Gulf of Akaba and his enterprise in the Red Sea, which was a threat to South Arabian monopoly of the caravan trade. The alphabetic inscriptions from South Arabia furnish no evidence for women rulers, but Assyrian inscriptions repeatedly mention Arab queens in the north, so that the Queen of Sheba may have been one of these; Northern Sabeans were also doubtless those mentioned in Job 1:15 (cf. Gen. 25:3; I Chron. 1:32) and their name may have survived in the Wadi Shaba northeast of Medina. Both southern and northern Sheba are to be distinguished from Seba (Heb. סְבָא), north Sudan (Isa. 43:3; Ps. 72:10).
By the end of the first century B.C.E. the Sabean state had absorbed the Minean kingdom to the south and Qataban to the north, and soon also the Hadhramaut. This aggrandizement eventually involved Sabea in war with the Abyssinians, but its final decline was due to internal dissensions between Jews and Christians, the latter sponsored by Abyssinia, then a Christian state, and the former identified with Arab nationalism. The last king of Sabea, Yusuf *Dhû-Nuwâs, adopted the Jewish faith. His persecution of the Christians provoked an Abyssinian invasion in 525 C.E. and occupation of the land and the oases on the caravan route to the north. This, together with the development of the Red Sea trade route, brought about the end of the state of Sabea, conventionally associated with the bursting of the great dam at Maʾrib in 542 which is symptomatic of the general neglect of the vital irrigation works after the collapse of the native government. The Abyssinian rule ended by 575 and was succeeded by Persian dominion for just over half a century, whereafter the native Sabeans were finally absorbed in the politico-religious empire of Islam.
The religion of Sabea was as well organized as that of any Semitic state in the Ancient Near East. Temples were well built and endowed with a large and well-organized staff. Inscriptions attest to native polytheism, including many unnamed gods of families and divine local lords (Baals). The chief gods were the moon-god, called Aʾlmaqah in Sabea; the sun-goddess; and ʿAthtar, the god of the planet Venus, the brightest star in those latitudes, who was the guide of caravans. Unlike the Mesopotamian Venus deity Ishtar, the South Arabian ʿAthtar was not worshipped as a goddess but as a god.
T.W. Rosmarin, in: Journal of the Society of Semitic Studies, 16 (1932), 1–2; J.A. Montgomery, Arabia and the Bible (1934); A. Grohmann, Arabia (Ger., 1936), 24, index S.V. Sabaʾ (Reich); J. Ryckmans, L'institution monarchique en Arabie méridionale… (19512); W. Phillips, Qataban and Sheba (1955); A. Jamme, in: M. Brillant and R. Aigrain (eds.), Histoire des Religions, 4 (1956), 239–307; H.W. Haussig (ed.), Woerterbuch der Mythologie, 1 (1965), 485ff.